ASK just about any player to iden­tify the best English course on the Open Cham­pi­onship rota and most are likely to an­swer, “Royal Birk­dale.” A look at the im­pres­sive list of win­ners there re­in­forces that view. Since the old­est ma­jor first vis­ited in 1954 – you have to won­der why it never got the nod be­fore then – the Lan­cashire links has con­sis­tently iden­ti­fied su­pe­rior cham­pi­ons.

Peter Thom­son was first. Then Arnold Palmer. Thommo again. Lee Trevino. Johnny Miller. Tom Wat­son. Ian Baker-Finch. Mark O’Meara. Padraig Har­ring­ton. Ev­ery time, the man left hold­ing the Claret Jug has ei­ther been an all-time great or, at the time of his vic­tory, at least one of the three or four best play­ers on the planet. That’s a sure in­di­ca­tion of Royal Birk­dale’s qual­ity. If I had a golf course and that was the list of past win­ners, I’d be con­tent enough know­ing my course was a bit spe­cial.

My own im­pres­sion of Birk­dale is that it is a nat­u­ral-ver­sion of what the TPC cour­ses in Amer­ica try to be. In other words, it is a “sta­dium course” armed with holes run­ning through high dunes that of­fer per­fect van­tage points for thou­sands of spec­ta­tors. That wasn’t what first stood out when I com­peted in the 2008 Open though. I was un­lucky enough to be out on the open­ing morn­ing when the weather was hor­rific – pour­ing rain and strong winds. The course was in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult in such ex­treme con­di­tions. I re­mem­ber walk­ing off not en­tirely un­happy with my 77.

The cut that year fell on 149, or nine over-par – I was on 151 – and even by the end, when the rain stopped and the wind dropped a bit, Padraig’s win­ning score was still three over. And only three oth­ers – Ian Poul­ter, Hen­rik Sten­son and Greg Nor­man – shot lower than 290. It was tough!

Again, what made things so dif­fi­cult – apart from the aw­ful weather – is the fact that Birk­dale plays “nar­row” com­pared with other Open cour­ses. There is an aw­ful lot of re­ally bad stuff you can hit into if you start miss­ing fair­ways (which I did). At Birk­dale you can’t get away with be­ing way­ward off the tee. The rough is full of what I can only de­scribe as some sort of “bram­bly gorse” that is al­most im­pos­si­ble to es­cape from.

One other thing that sticks in my mem­ory is how of­ten the holes at Birk­dale change di­rec­tion, more than any other Open course. A lot of them just go “out-and-back,” but Birk­dale wan­ders, which means you are faced with al­most ev­ery kind of wind di­rec­tion over the course of the 18-holes. Al­most ev­ery day there are re­ally long holes and re­ally short holes. The par-3s are es­pe­cially mem­o­rable, too. So there is a lot of va­ri­ety amidst a large num­ber of doglegs, all of them with an “awk­ward” feel on the tee.

All of which is no sur­prise, when you think about it.

For a course to twice iden­tify Peter Thom­son and then nearly come up with Greg Nor­man as its cham­pion, it has to be one playable for all types of golfers. Thommo and Greg were both great, but they didn’t have much in com­mon when it came to their styles of play. Yet Birk­dale let them both shine.

On the other side of that coin, Birk­dale is the sort of course that ex­poses the less-than great for what they don’t have. The top play­ers tend to have ev­ery shot in the bag, so on a course that asks for all of those they are in­evitably go­ing to make their way onto the leader board. So the guys with the least num­ber of weak­nesses are go­ing to pros­per. I like that sce­nario.

Then there is the 18th. I’m not sure why this is – and it might just be co­in­ci­dence – but great things have al­ways hap­pened on Birk­dale’s fin­ish­ing hole.

At the 1969 Ry­der Cup, Jack Nick­laus fa­mously con­ceded Tony Jack­lin’s short putt and the matches were tied.

In 1976 Seve Balles­teros an­nounced him­self to the world with an au­da­cious chip shot be­tween the green­side bunkers en route to fin­ish­ing sec­ond be­hind Miller.

Seven years later, Tom Wat­son clinched what was his last ma­jor win with an epic 2-iron that found the heart of the putting sur­face.

And in 1998 Justin Rose, then a 17-year-old amateur, holed out a wedge for an un­likely birdie and fin­ished tied for fourth.

Oh yes, one last thing. The club­house. For some­one from out­side the UK, the men­tal pic­ture of club­houses at Open venues is of an­cient cas­tle-like build­ings. But that’s not the case at Birk­dale. The “art deco” club­house is some­thing to see and one of the most recog­nis­able in the world. That’s all I’m say­ing.

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